Should coaching include a trigger warning?

Many videos, movies, books and articles these days come with a “trigger warning”. It is an announcement that serves to alert people who are sensitive to certain topics to be careful when engaging with the content. For me, personally, this has helped — I get nightmares when I am watching movies that contain too much violence (no games of thrones for me).

Coaching, however, is emergent, so it cannot come with a trigger warning, just as many other situations in life that are unplanned. Both coach and client can be reminded of bad situations, of emotions that they experienced previously. The content of a conversation can lead both coach and client into a spiral of thoughts that whisk them away from the conversation to a different place.

When this happens to the client, the coach can gently inquire what the client would like to do: look at what was just triggered (if it is not a psychotherapeutic issue) or continue with the previous topic. Maybe there is also a space for exploring the connection. If it is an issue that is best explored in psychotherapy, the coach can help the client find the right support.

I have an example from one of my trainings. A coach asked her client: “What is still functioning?” (obviously she was inviting the client to think about things that are going well) and the client responded in tears, sobbing: “Yes, I am only functioning, I am not living, everyone depends on me.” The “trigger” was never intentioned. Luckily the coach had the wherewithal to wait, hand some tissues and connect with the client empathically: “I am so sorry to hear that — would you like to talk about this some more or would you like to continue talking about how to manage your work/life balance, or maybe there is even some connection?”

I strongly believe that both coach and client are present as human beings in the conversation: the client in the center, the coach decentered but fully there. So it can also happen that the client mentions something that triggers strong emotions, thoughts and memories in the coach. We are human! So what to do then?

Maybe our first impulse is to hide our response from the client. After all, they are paying us to be professional, right? I don’t think that’s the best way, however. For me, at least, if I try and push something away, it stays longer. So noticing my feeling, taking a breath, realizing that I am now in my own show (that may have nothing to do with the client) and letting it pass is usually the best strategy for me. I don’t hide my response from my clients, but make sure to ask to take a moment or just sit in silence for a bit. Whatever happens, I don’t want the coaching session to be about me. And that’s the touching stone for our response to “triggers” – can we self-regulate to the point that the coaching conversation stays focused on the client?

Mindfulness, meditation, reflective practice, playing a musical instrument (really: you do have to learn to manage your emotions there as well!), learning to sing, writing poetry are all activities which might help you learn this valuable skill.

Do come and join us for a free meetup and exchange to discuss these and other topics around coaching, learn about our classes or just hang out with a friendly bunch of coaches and coaches-to-be:

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